BARONESS PONTALBA
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So many of us, beginning as young children, have walked through Jackson Square in the French Quarter perhaps drawn to the St. Louis Cathedral, statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback, the artists and mimes, and the mule-drawn carriages

 

carrying visitors on tours throughout the French Quarter.

pontalbabuilding

What in fact turns out to be perhaps the most intriguing stories of those sights is tied to the two impressive red brick buildings which face one another on opposite sides of the square. The history behind their conception and construction is connected to an amazingly resourceful woman whose accomplishments and independence were years ahead of their time. Her name was Micaela Almonester Pontalba (1795-1874) and how her story connects to the structures could not have been more dramatic if written as a novel.

Micaela was born in New Orleans to Andres Almonester, a wealthy landowner and politician who had built a fortune in real estate throughout the New Orleans area. Shortly after Micaela’s birth, Almonester was granted permission by the governing Spanish body to purchase lands on each side of the public square (Place de Armas) which was the muster or assembly area for the militia. Private acquisition of public areas took some doing and Almonester’s position in the community enabled that purchase.

Micaela’s father was nearly 70 years of age when she was born and died when she was only 2 years old. Left to be raised by her widowed mother, a marriage was arranged between she and her cousin, Celestin de Pontalba, son of a prominent Spanish family in Europe. So shortly following her 15th birthday, Micaela was married in New Orleans and along with her expensive dowry shipped off to the Pontalba estate in Paris.

Celestin turned out to be a weak and unsupportive husband who was dominated by his money-driven, paranoid father, the Baron Joseph Pontalba. Micaela, nevertheless, held the marriage together and had five children with Celestin. As the marriage relationship deteriorated, it became obvious that her father-in-law was more interested in the Almonester fortune than he was of his son, daughter-in-law, or grandchildren.

Pontalba set upon a series of legal maneuvers to obtain Micaela’s rights to her father’s estate. This only made matters worse; arguments became more frequent and the treatment of Micaela declined even more as she fought Pontalba’s every attempt. The situation culminated during one of her commanded visits to her father-in-law’s study in 1834. Behind closed doors, shots rang out and servants discovered Micaela shot several times in the chest and hand. It was just a few hours later than the insane Pontalba took his own life with the same weapon he used on his son’s wife.

Micaela returned to New Orleans after her recovery; was forced to leave her children behind in Paris and eventually obtained a separation from Celestin. Unfortunately the Pontalba family had managed to turn the children against their mother and they did not travel to New Orleans until adulthood.

By now Micaela was a confident and strong-willed woman and she looked around her birth city and decided to create a legacy to her father’s memory. The buildings which were originally constructed on either side of Almonester’s acquired land were poorly constructed shacks; most being used to stable horses. With vision, Micaela designed and oversaw construction of what was to become the most elegant and impressive apartment buildings in the United States.

She would ride out on horseback, flaming red hair blowing in the wind, and inspect the project daily. What an amazing spectacle in mid 19th Century, to see this woman perform a “man’s” work.

If you’re interested in getting the complete details of this story, I urge you to visit your local bookstore or online and locate a copy of Intimate Enemies by Christina Vella— a great read. Also, next time you’re down on Jackson Square, continue to enjoy all of the sights and sounds, but take just a few minutes to observe these magnificant 3 1/2 story, red Philadelphia Brick structures. Take special note of the ornate scroll work fronting the balconies; and see if you can discern the intertwined letters “AP” for Almonaster Pontalba. I’ve assisted with the black and white photo on this page. Today those buildings are simply known as thePontalba Buildings.